Lou Reed and That Junkie Life
I was five years old when Velvet Underground & Nico was released in 1967, so it wasn’t really high on my rotation or my radar. As a matter of fact, the only thing I knew of Lou Reed prior to the early 1990s when I discovered Velvet Ground & Nico was his infamous song “Walk on the Wild Side.”
As a girl who spent her teen years on the streets, ran with androgynous queers, queens and other sexual misfits, and displaced my own sexuality onto drugs and punk rock, I thought “Walk on the Wild Side” was an anthem of my rebellious spirit that bucked against all systems, screamed for freedom, and flipped a big middle finger to anyone who wanted to put me in a box. That song, Lou Reed, and the Velvet Underground were proto-punk and changed the sound and face of rock forever. Though I didn’t know much about them, they certainly influenced my life on many levels whether I knew it or not.
Other than my love for “Walk On the Wild Side” and Velvet Underground & Nico, I’m no expert on Lou Reed, and I’m not going to pretend to be. What I can tell you is that when I discovered the album Velvet Underground & Nico in my early 30s, I completely fell in love with it. It became a kind of soundtrack to my life. It put sound and voice to my own life experiences even if my experiences were worlds removed from Andy Warhold’s Factory where the album was produced. To this day, it is high on my list of the Best Albums of All Time. In fact, I would say my top favorite albums are: 1) The Who Quadrophenia; 2) Joy Division Closer; 3) Joy Division Unknown Pleasures; and 4) Velvet Underground & Nico.
What all these albums share in common is that that bring me inside myself to a place free from the suffocating pressures of “normal” society. They lead me to the depths of my interior self, free from external pressures. This is a place where we often look to drugs and alcohol to take us, but for me, these four albums allow me transcendence without drugs to get me there. The music itself becomes the drug. Quadrophenia brings me back to my working class home in Pacifica, CA where I found solace and escape at the cold foggy seaside. The noise of childhood was woven into The Who’s lyrics and music that thrummed with experiential reality put into a single piece of music art. The Joy Division albums have the same effect. They distill experience (bodily and emotional) into a multi-layered sound where music, poetry, and rebellion collide and produce music that simultaneously opens a door inside myself and outside of myself. Clearly the sound and sentiment of Joy Division were influenced by Velvet Underground. All of these albums beautifully mesh the interior and the exterior. The sound of the music leads us to a place that blurs the division between reality and dream while the lyrics are poetry carved out of the material of real life.
I’m not here to give you a history lesson on Velvet Underground or tell you about all the bands their sound influenced (e.g. the heroin-driven “shoe gazing” rock of the 1990s or New York-based art rock like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo). What I can tell you is that I immediately fell in love with the album because of 1) its addictively seductive sound; 2) its ability to capture a cohesive experiential moment in a multi-track LP; 3) its poetic lyrics that capture both the literal reality of life on the streets and the abstract sensation of getting high; 4) finally, and most importantly, because it is the album above all other albums that most effectively captures life on the streets and, more specifically, the life of a heroin addict. It’s like the music equivalent to the film Panic In Needle Park (1972) which so perfectly captures the ups and downs of the life of the junkie. On the VU album, the layered sound of the music and the poetic lyrics capture so perfectly what it feels like to live the life of a dope addict – the dream, the drug, the space of being propelled into a numbed nothingness that heroin delivers.
Kim Nicolini and her portrait of Lou Reed.
I will state straight out and without apology that I know firsthand the life of the street junkie. I spent a good chunk of my teenage years putting a needle in my arm and hunting for my next fix. I can say, as any living former junkie can tell you, that shooting heroin feels like nothing else. You never stop wanting it, no matter how many years of sobriety you have under your belt. Heroin is the Great Seductress. Once she has you in her clenches, it is almost impossible to let go. It feels so damn good that all you want is more, more, and then more, and you’ll do anything to get it. Heroin is the “Femme Fatale” of all drugs. She gets you in her grip, lures you into her bed, covers you with a blanket of dark kisses that lead you into the darkness of oblivion, and then she keeps you groveling for more.
Here she comes, you better watch your step
She’s going to break your heart in two, it’s true
It’s not hard to realize
Just look into her false colored eyes
She builds you up to just put you down, what a clown
I will pull no punches here when I say what I’m about to say about Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. The more conscious I became of class, the less enamored I became of the whole idea of Andy Warhol’s Factory. In my early years, I totally fetishized it. Imagine the glitter glam world of art films, art bands, false eyelashes, and endless dope floating in silver balloons. I thought if I could ever go anywhere in the past, it would be a party at The Factory. But now, after years of understanding the nuances of class and, in particular, class divisions within the art scene, I can say that if I went to a party at Andy Warhol’s factory, I’d probably be pretty miserable. What The Factory produced were a lot of elitist art snobs. It was a very elite insulated culture created by artist insiders wearing the guise of outsiders. Period.
Lou Reed liked to play off his sexuality as being “bisexual” or “homosexual”, but the truth of the matter is that Lou Reed was straight as a ruler. He used “alternative sexuality” as a marketing scheme. His true lover was his drugs, but that can be said about any junkie, so this is no condemnation of Lou Reed. The only “lay” the junkie wants is the one with a needle in his or her arm. Lou Reed may have been hanging out with queers and trannies, but when it came time to getting penetrated, he was getting it on with the needle. That’s largely why he was still alive to produce art in the 80s and 90s when the queer art world was dying off from AIDS. But this doesn’t mean that Lou Reed was not a ground-breaking artist. This is just a sign of the times when sexual identity was often manipulated and exploited for art and profit (see David Bowie and the New York Dolls for examples). So let me cast no stones here.
This brings me to why I love Velvet Underground & Nico so much even though it was produced by a very elite school of artists from which I would have felt completely excluded and alienated. The needle is a great class leveler. Regardless of where you come from and where you are, when you put that needle in your arm, every junkie is the same. Whether shooting up in a back room at Andy Warhol’s factory or a skid row hotel, the feeling of the drug is absolutely the same and universal. That feeling and the experiences that accompany it are what this album captures so completely through poetic lyrics and beautifully crafted sound. The album is like a Romantic ode to heroin carved out of poetry and layers of sound. Transpose Samuel Coleridge to late 1960s New York, and he could have written the lyrics.
The Wikipedia entry on the LP describes it as an album with “a focus on controversial subject matter expressed in many of its songs including drug abuse, prostitution, sadism and masochism and sexual deviancy.” Sure, on the surface, you can give the album this read. The content is all there. But, if you listen to the album from the perspective of a junkie, the entire album is about the experience of being a heroin addict. The drug is the sex, the perversion, the deviancy. The prostitution is double-edged. Every junkie is a prostitute to the drug, and the drug often leads to prostitution for its acquisition. Velvet Underground & Nico is above all else an epic album about the heroin lifestyle and all it encompasses on a sensory and experiential level.
No doubt, Lou Reed’s iconic song “Heroin” completely embodies the experience of shooting dope. The sound of the music perfectly mimics the feel of heroin coursing through your veins, from the first shot to the rush to the lull into nothingness. I can get high just listening to its build, its ebb and flows. I feel the “spike” go into my vein. I feel the rush go through my body. Even today, over thirty years after I last put a needle in my vein, I can still feel high listening to that song.
Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life
Because a mainer to my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I’m better off than dead
Because when the smack begins to flow
I really don’t care anymore
But this isn’t the only song about using heroin on the album. Every single track captures the junkie lifestyle on some level, even when you think it’s Velvet Underground Lite or playing on sexual perversion. Take “Venus In Furs”. I think this might be the most accurate song about being a junkie on the album. In fact, the title of my drawing of Lou Reed is taken from lyrics to this song. The song title refers to the sado-masochistic novel written by Sacher-Masoch, from whom the term masochism was derived. On the surface, the song may seem like a simple parable of sexual perversion (a sexual slave being dominated by his lover), but the truth is that the mistress in this song is a drug not a human, and the slave is the junkie held in her clutches. (“Heroin — It’s my wife and it’s my life.”)
I am tired, I am weary
I could sleep for a thousand years
A thousand dreams that would awake me
Different colors made of tears
Kiss the boot of shiny, shiny leather
Shiny leather in the dark
Tongue of thongs, the belt that does await you
Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart
Heroin, above all drugs, delivers the opiated dream, the life of sleep. You tie off your arm with the leather belt and get kissed by a tongue of thongs. You “dream the sleep of a thousand years,” and you become a slave to the only thing you desire. The next high. The next spike. The belt strapped around your arm while you let your alluring mistress take over your body. Heroin is the great dominatrix, the lover you will give anything for. And you consummate that love with a belt and a needle.
Heroin is the great “Femme Fatale” – the ultimate tease who will keep you begging for more and “break your heart in two” with her “false colored eyes.” She is your mistress, and you are her slave. And it feels good to give over to her so completely. If you are entirely enslaved to the drug, the rest of the world no longer matters. You can lose yourself “in a thousand dreams” until you run out, and you’re left high and dry. Until you’re “out on the streets again” selling your body and soul for your next high . . .
There she goes again
She’s out on the streets again
She’s down on her knees, my friend
But you know she’ll never ask you please again . . .
Now take a look, there’s no tears in her eyes
Like a bird, you know she will fly, fly, fly away
See her walking on down the street . . .
or standing on the corner “waiting for the man” . . .
I’m waiting for my man
Twenty-six dollars in my hand
Up to Lexington, 125
Feeling sick and dirty, more dead than alive
Shooting heroin is all about being dead and alive at the same time. It’s about flirting with the dark side and pushing the envelope while you push in the needle. And the sound and the lyrics of this album beautifully and perfectly capture that place between life and death, where you ride the limbo land of heroin’s dark waves, and everything you do is centered on keeping the waves coming. The risk is part of the thrill – knowing that you are pushing right to the brink of death and that the danger of falling over the edge and never coming back is real. Because death is part of life for the junkie like in “Run Run Run”:
Seasick Sarah had a golden nose
Hobnail boots wrapped around her toes
When she turned blue, all the angels screamed
They didn’t know, they couldn’t make the scene
Even songs that seem bright and light like “Sunday Morning” are actually dark dreams of what could be and isn’t because everything is shrouded in the lows of the high. Junkies aren’t always passed out in needles in their arms. There are always these moments of euphoria where everything seems absolutely perfect. The glimpses of hope that at the end there really is a rainbow, but inevitably the clouds come back and the rain comes down.
Sunday morning rain is falling
Steal some covers, share some skin
And clouds are shrouding us in moments unforgettable
What this album does so beautifully is seduce us just like a drug. The way Warhol pushed the levels to the max causing the layers of sound to blur and warp perfectly captures getting high, and the music becomes its own drug. The sound, the lyrics, the play between sex, dreams, and the reality of the street life all combine to a sensory experience that seduces us into feeling high. The music becomes the great seductress. The album is our mistress as we listen to over and over want more and more. The thrum of guitar and bass mesh like blood coursing through our veins.
The entire album – every track, every lyric, every sound embodies the life of the junkie, and that life is pretty much the same no matter who or where you are. It involves highs and lows, prostitution and desperation, sex displaced onto needles, and needles penetrating you like sex. It is living death and dreams layered on dreams. It is the great escape even when you have to go through hell to get there. You will sell your body. You will sell your soul, just to feel that spike in your vein and that rush of escape. Lou Reed new that feeling, that life, and he put it into lyrics with poetic brilliance. Even after thirty years of sobriety, the feelings of getting high on heroin — the warm burn of the first shot, the rush as the drugs go to my brain and heart — are still real when I listen to this album. I can’t listen to “Heroin” without unconsciously scratching the veins on my inner arm or feeling a wave of nausea.
What’s interesting is that the album was created within an elite environment, but the aesthetics and poetics of the music transcend class. The overall “feel” of the songs is one that any junkie can relate to. The needle is the great leveler, and interestingly being a junkie transcends class on an experiential level. We’re all the same with the spike in our vein.
So now, 46 years after the album came out and thirty years drug-free in my life, I can still listen to the album and feel “high.” The music itself has becomes my drug even in my sobriety. I play the album and feel my body chemistry change just by immersing myself in the sound of the music. Couple the way the music feels with where I “go” when I’m making art, and the high I experience is undeniably one of the best highs of my life, especially because I am sober, and everything I do and feel is coming straight from me and not induced by synthetic external chemicals. I’m mainlining my own internal “art chemistry” combined with the sensory experience of the music. It’s a kind of Art Speedball. I don’t need to go “meet the man” to get what I need to get high. I get it from within myself with the soundtrack of Velvet Underground giving me a boost to push me through to the other side.
I listened to the entire Velvet Underground & Nico LP multiple times while drawing my tribute portrait of Lou Reed. And between the music and channeling my own “art chemistry” into the drawing, I was as high as I’ve ever been. I felt myself on the streets. I felt myself sitting in a hotel room priming the syringe for a fix. Yet, I also felt the euphoria of being alive and sober now. I was completely immersed in the present and rocking my sobriety hard as I vigorously scratched away at my drawing. The only thing I was “shooting” was a lot of black ink out of pens onto a big old piece of paper.
Interestingly, Lou Reed was sober just about the same amount of time I have been when he died this past Sunday. Yet, he never stopped channeling what he put into his music back in 1967. He just learned that you can tap the vein without the drug. I tap the vein every time I pick up a Cheap Ass Ballpoint Pen and put it to paper. I tapped the vein when I drew Lou Reed. I am tapping the vein right now as I write this. I am my own mirror:
I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know
I’ll be the wind, the rain and the sunset
The light on your door to show that you’re home
When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you’re twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind
Please put down your hands
‘Cause I see you
Sadly, it is the “source” of this great album that ultimately did Lou Reed in when his drug and alcohol abuse killed his liver. He got sober. He learned how to mainline life, but it was too late. I’ve been lucky. I kicked heroin cold. I kicked alcohol. I learned how to get high on life, love, art and the thrill of my own survival rather than the flirtation with my own death.
Here’s to Lou’s legend and to many more years of mainlining life for this old girl. Here’s to you Lou Reed for giving me a place in music to understand my years on the streets and my years as a drug addict. Here’s to Lou Reed for giving me a soundtrack to understand my past while also transcending it in the present. It’s funny to think that Lou Reed and I shared experiences since we came from such different worlds, but the world of the junkie is the world of the junkie. Thankfully, I have discovered a clean and clear place within myself where I can channel my own chemistry into a sober high that is far better than anything I shot into my vein for a twenty dollar bill that cost so much more than the numbers printed on that green piece of paper. Here’s to celebrating life in the wake of Lou’s death.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.